NWOSU claims FERPA prohibits disclosure of students receiving $214,000 in scholarships funded by Alva sales taxes

An Alva city councilman last week questioned the claim by Northwestern Oklahoma State University officials that a federal privacy law prohibits them from disclosing which students receive scholarships funded by the city's sales taxes, The Alva Review-Courier reported Sunday.

NWOSU officials had provided the names for the past decade under a 1999 agreement with the city.

NWOSU also requires students receiving the scholarships to sign a FERPA form permitting the school to notify their hometown newspapers, reported Helen Barrett of The Alva Review-Courier and an FOI Oklahoma board member.

But last month when university officials submitted a $214,000 bill for scholarships distributed in the spring, they claimed the
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act forbids disclosure of the names.

In January, The Alva Review-Courier had raised questions about the distribution of the fall semester scholarships.

Of the $220,222 in Alva Incentive Sales Tax Scholarships distributed that semester, $57,000 was awarded to 57 athletes, the newspaper reported. Each received $1,000, which was the largest amount given to students.

In contrast, 18 students received valedictorian scholarships of $750 each.

At last week's meeting, Councilman Roger Hardaway questioned why the City Council had not been given the list of names when school officials presented the bill for spring scholarships.

“We're doing the public's business here. We should do it in the light, not in the darkness,” said Hardaway, who signed FOI Oklahoma's Open Government Pledge in 2009.

"We're becoming less open instead of more open," he said. "I think the newspaper should publish a list of every single person who gets this money because it's public money. If they don't want to waive that right, then don't give them the money.”
At Hardaway's insistence, he was allowed to see the list prior to the Council meeting.

But City Attorney Rick Cunningham told Hardaway that if he gave the list to someone not on the Council, he could be cited for violating a federal law. (Rick Cunningham is the husband of NWOSU President Janet Cunningham.)

The article didn't specify which federal privacy law Hardaway might be violating.

However, FERPA wouldn't seem to apply to Hardaway in these circumstances.

Although Hardaway is a NWOSU history professor and scholarship coordinator for the school's social sciences department, he would have distributed the list in his capacity as an elected city official, not as a university employee.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.